Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ode to Willy A. Higginbotham

I would imagine that Mr. Willy A. Higginbotham would have wanted to be remembered for his work in nuclear nonproliferation, but the world doesn't work like that. The world remembers him for creating one of the world's first computer video games, Tennis for Two.

While I'm sure Higginbotham's work as Chairman of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was fascinating and all, especially the part about using scientific analysis to make the world more secure, it was really his video game that interested people most. 

It's too bad Higginbotham didn't turn his video game proclivity toward creating an atomic bomb video game that simulated what would happen to people and the planet rather than trying one out in real time. 

See what happens when you don't play games?

In the end, it was Higginbotham's hands-on display for "Visitor's Day" at Brookhaven National Laboratory that people remembered most. The cardboard displays with blinking lights to look at, geiger counters and electronic circuits to fiddle with - all very cool to earlier generations. 

It was a stroke of genius to take that oscilloscope (the one with the cathode ray tube like the old TV picture tubes) and an old analog computer and hook them up in a way that a "ball" of light would bounce randomly around the screen. 

Think about it, all those years of missing parties just to study, while it only took him two hours to draw up the schematic diagram for "Table for Two"? 

Within minutes, hundreds of people crowded around Higginbotham's game for a chance to play. They didn't care about peaceful applications of nuclear energy, they wanted to be entertained. 

Given this response in 1958, it's not difficult to move forward to today, when most people would rather be entertained than think about the work scientists in white lab coats conduct for the governments and oligarchies who fund their research.

You'll never believe this, but after Visitor's Day in 1959 Higginbotham took the game apart and put the pieces away! 

What was he thinking? 

Higginbotham could have patented his invention and earned oodles of money while the world went on playing games. Even the patent lawyer for one of Magnavox's competitors might have helped him make some money off his invention.

But he was probably right, money isn't everything and Higginbotham wanted to be remembered for his work in nuclear nonproliferation. Of course, most people don't know what that means, which might be why most people don't care. What they do care about is playing video games. In 2001, Americans spent $9.4 billion dollars on video game systems and software. 

While I realize working for the government means they would have owned the patent (anything you invent under the umbrella of the government belongs to the government), but it's kind of ironic that Higginbotham is remembered more for a bouncing ball than for his noteworthy work in nuclear physics. 

It just goes to show that no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you sacrifice, sometimes all any of us can hope to be remembered for might end up being something silly - like a video game. 

I guess it's a good lesson in not taking oneself too seriously.

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